The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

45. Where the "old honour" has not altogether fled

"CHRISTMAS DAY (French, Noel from Dies natalis ; German Weihnachtsfest ; Old Eng. and Scand. Yule ; Ang.-Sax., Geol), a festival of the Christian church, observed on the 25th of December, in memory of the birth of Jesus Christ. There is, however, a difficulty in accepting this as the date of the Nativity, December being the height of the rainy season in Judea, when neither flocks nor shepherds could have been at night in the fields of Bethlehem."

Indeed, and this fact is well worth pointing out before we all get carried away by the peculiar joys of the season.
"It is generally considered to rank third among the festivals of the church (Easter and Whitsuntide alone being placed above it) and to have a joy peculiarly its own.

In all civilized countries the annual recurrence of Christmas has been celebrated with festivities of various kinds."

What would be helpful, one supposes, is if there were a particular civilized country whose festivities were most worthy of consideration.
"In none, however, was it more joyfully welcomed than in England, where even still the "old honour" has not altogether fled. In that country it was the custom on Christmas eve, after the usual devotions were over, to light large candles and throw on the hearth a huge log, called the Yule Log or Christmas Block. At court, and in the houses of the wealthy, an officer, named the Lord of Misrule, was appointed to superintend the revels ; and in Scotland a similar functionary used to be appointed under the title of the Abbot of Unreason, till the year 1555, when the office was abolished by Act of Parliament."

We are more fortunate in modern times to be blessed by a parliament that has returned the promotion of fun and jollity to the duties of government, in the person of the Rt Hon Andy Burnham MP and his Department for Culture Media and Sport.
"The reign of the Lord of Misrule began on All-Hallow eve, and lasted till Candlemas day. The favourite pastimes over which he presided were gaming, music, conjuring, dipping for nuts and apples, dancing, fool plough, hot cockles, blind-man's buff, &c. ; and various Christian preachers (as, for instance, St Bernard) have taken occasion to remonstrate with their flocks for paying too great attention to the festive character of the season, and too little to its more solemn aspects. The favourite dishes for breakfast and supper at this season were the boar's head with an apple or orange in the mouth, and set off with rosemary, plum pudding, and mince pies. The house and churches were decked with evergreens, especially with mistletoe, to which a traditional sacredness has been attached since the days of the Druids."

Now, if you will forgive me, I have revels to superintend. Best wishes of the season to one and all!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

44. Pianowire, steam-engines and explosives.

In an age of technological marvels, how best to arm his navy was a question which was readily answered for the gentlemen of 1886. With its engine powered by compressed air achieving an impressive 24 knots over 600 yards, and delivering a payload charge of up to 100lb of gun-cotton, the Whitehead torpedo was clearly the weapon of choice. The Whitehead's accuracy and unwavering course were thanks to an ingenious mechanism in the 'balance-chamber' ('C' in the accompanying diagram) which operated self-correcting fins at the tail. Britannica's author observed that the device "has never been patented, but is a secret ; the details of it, however, have been purchased by all prominent maritime nations."

Less prominent maritime nations may have had to settle for the Sims or the Brennan.

"The Sims torpedo is cigar-shaped, and is suspended to a boat-shaped float. The torpedo is propelled by screws driven by an electric motor situated in the body, the current for which is supplied from a dynamo ashore. The electric cable is coiled on a drum in the torpedo, and pays out as the torpedo advances. The torpedo is also steered from the shore by an electric current. Its speed is about 12 knots."

I'm sorry, an electric torpedo that plugs into a generator on land seems a little impractical? Well, how about this then :

"The principle of the Brennan torpedo is as follows. The torpedo contains two drums upon which a large amount of pianoforte wire is wound. One end of the wire from each drum is taken to large drums ashore, which are revolved by a steam-engine. By winding up on the large drums ashore a rotatory motion is imparted to the drums in the torpedo, which by means of gearing revolve two screw propellers, and these drive the torpedo through the water. The torpedo ca be steered from the shore in any direction, by winding on one drum faster than the other, which alteration in motion moves a vertical rudder on the torpedo."

Although it sounds more like something Heath Robinson may have thought up, impeccable online sources inform me that the Brennan was, in fact, the War Office's defensive weapon of choice at ports harbours throughout the British Empire from 1886 to 1905. The invention of Australian Louis Brennan, it was "the world's first guided weapon," and the only surviving example of this historic weapon can be admired at the Royal Engineers Museum in Kent.

The full article TORPEDO by Commander Edwin J. P. Gallwey of the H.M.S. "Polyphemus" can be read at Reading it will at the very least give some indication why the thickness of ironclad armour was of such national importance, and along with articles such as vol. 9's FORTIFICATION, it ominously foreshadows the industrialized carnage and horror of the First World War.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

43. Great scousers in history (part 1)

Here's an inspiring, brief biography of an inspiring, brief life. All the story of science that followed, from falling apples to men on the moon, is reflected at the moment an excited young clergyman rushes from his church, grasping a pocketbook of laboriously scribbled notes, toward a quiet spot where the dying light of the winter sun burns along the length of a brass telescope, standing patiently in the cold flat fields of West Lancashire.

"HORROCKS, JEREMIAH (1619-1641), an astronomer of extraordinary promise, blighted by a premature death, was born in 1619 at Toxteth Park, near Liverpool. Of the circumstances of his family little is known, further than that they were poor, but the register of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, testifies to his entry as sizar, May 18, 1632. Isolated in his scientific tastes, and painfully straitened in means, he pursued amid numerable difficulties his purpose of self-education. His university career lasted three years, and on his return to Lancashire he devoted to astronomical observations the brief intervals of leisure snatched from the harassing occupations of a laborious life. In 1636 he met with a congenial spirit in William Crabtree, a draper of Broughton, near Manchester ; and encouraged by his advice he exchanged the guidance of Lansberg, a pretentious but inaccurate Belgian astronomer, for that of Kepler. He now set himself to the revision of the Rudolphine Tables (Published by Kepler in 1627), and in the progress of his task became convinced that a transit of Venus overlooked by Kepler would nevertheless occur on the 24th of November (O.S.) 1639. He was at this time curate of Hoole, near Preston, having recently taken orders in the Church of England, although, according to the received accounts, he had not attained the canonical age. The 24th of November falling on a Sunday, his clerical duties threatened fatally to clash with his astronomical observations ; he was, however, released just in time to witness the punctual verification of his forecast, and carefully noted the progress of the phenomenon during half an hour before sunset (3.15 to 3.45). This transit of Venus is remarkable as the first ever observed, that of 1631 predicted by Kepler having been invisible in Europe. Notwithstanding the rude character of the apparatus at his disposal, Horrocks was enabled by his observation of it to introduce some important corrections into the elements of the planet's orbit, and to reduce to its exact value the received estimate of its apparent diameter.

After a year spent at Hoole, he returned to Toxteth, and there, on the eve of a long-promised visit to his friend Crabtree, unexpectedly expired, January 3, 1641, in the twenty-second year of his age. It is difficult to over-estimate the services which, had his life been prolonged, this singularly gifted youth might have rendered to astronomical science. To the inventive activity of the discoverer he already united the patient skill of the observer and the practical sagacity of the experimentalist. Before he was twenty he had afforded a specimen of his powers by an important contribution to the lunar theory. He first brought the revolutions of our satellite within the domain of Kepler's laws, pointing out that her apparent irregularities could be completely accounted for by supposing her to move in an ellipse with a variable eccentricity and directly rotatory major axis, of which the earth occupied one focus. These precise conditions were afterwards demonstrated by Newton to follow necessarily from the law of gravitation.

In his speculations as to the physical cause of the celestial motions, his mind, though not as yet wholly emancipated from the tyranny of gratuitous assumptions, was working steadily towards the light. He clearly perceived the significant analogy between terrestrial gravity and the force exerted in the solar system, and used an ingenious experiment to illustrate the composite character of the planetary movements. He also reduced the solar parallax to 14" (less than a quarter of Kepler's estimate), corrected the sun's semi-diameter to 15' 45", recommended decimal notation, and was the first to make tidal observations."

More, indeed probably all there is to find, can be read about this great, scouse pioneer of science at this page hosted by the University of Central Lancashire's Transit of Venus webpage. Unfortunately, if you missed it in 2004, it will be another 120 or so years before anyone can take the opportunity to repeat Jeremiah's historic observation. There are plaques and so forth to Horrock's memory at the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth (where he is presumed to have prayed and studied as a boy, and thought to have been buried in an unmarked grave), the nearby St Michael's church (the one with the pink tower), and opposite Newton's memorial in Westminster Abbey. Lower Lodge, where Horrocks is believed to have been born, stands no more, but was within spitting distance of Barleycorn Towers, where this electro-aetheric remembrance has been composed.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

42. Three methods for growing cucumbers

From HORTICULTURE by Mr T. Moore, late of the Botanic Garden, Chelsea.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

41. Dr. Dudley A. Sargent of Harvard University was a plagiarist

Wherever possible, it is the object of this blog to afford its readers a fuller understanding of the great issues of our times, through resort to the learned and precise sages employed by the offices of Adam and Charles Black.

"DANCE. The term dancing in its widest sense includes three things :-(1) the spontaneous activity of the muscles under the influence of some strong emotion, such as social joy or religious exultation ; (2) definite combinations of graceful movements performed for the sake of the pleasure which the exercise affords to the dancer or to the spectator ; (3) carefully trained movements which are meant by the dancer vividly to represent the actions and passions of other people."

Beloved quondam BBC chief political correspondent John Sargeant's Saturday night TV performances might never be agreed to be graceful, that their object was the pleasure of dancer and spectator both is beyond refute.

To digress briefly, in "Amo, Amas, Amat... And All That," author Harry Mount derides the use of 'quondam' in place of the plain English 'former' (by Chris Patten, the erstwhile Governor of Hong Kong) as wankerish, which it may indeed be, but I found this particular example a bit odd coming from a proselytizing classicist. Pompously obscuring otherwise straightforward statements must ever be the most entertaining use that a half-remembered smattering of Latin can be put to : 'quondam,' however, is surely not even that obscure, generally guessable from context, and found in most dictionaries of English.

Returning to DANCE, it may be akin to the hypothetical balletic dissertation concerning architecture, but at least W. C. Smith, LL. B., writes with a grace and measure appropriate to his subject.

"If the steps of dancing and the intervals of time be not precisely equal, there is still a pleasure depending on the gradually increasing intensity of motion, on the undulation which uniformly rises in order to fall. As Florizel says to Perdita, "When you dance, I wish you a wave of the sea" (Winter's Tale, iv. 3). The mind feels the beauty of emphasis and cadence in muscular motion, just as much as in musical notes. Then, the figure of the dance is frequently a circle or some more graceful curve or series of curves, -a fact which satisfies the dancer as well as the eye of the spectator. But all such effects are intensified by the use of music, which not only brings a perfectly distinct set of pleasurable sensations to dancer and spectator, but by the control of dancing produces an inexpressibly sweet harmony of sound and motion."

I intended to use that last phrase of W. C. Smith, "An inexpressibly sweet harmony of sound and motion," as the header for this posting. It is my habit, however, to enter a sentence or two of the quoted articles into the Google machine, to see if I am able to direct Accordingianists to the complete original somewhere out in Interwebshire (most usually the Antipodean precincts of the esteemed Imagine my shock and outrage when a search for "perfectly distinct set of pleasurable sensations" dredged up an exact match from the New York Times of January 3rd, and an article "Modern Dance as Athletic Exercise" by Dr Dudley A. Sargent of Harvard University. In a lengthy piece, initial examination only uncovers two sentences cribbed from Britannica by Dr. Sargent, but I find that incriminating enough. The Google also reveals that Sargent was one of the early pioneers of physical education, an anthropometrist, the inventor of much gym equipment still in use today, and his career at Harvard spanned 40 years.

A steady flow of Google-directed traffic to this site suggests that I may be responsible for propagating the knowledge that (to one commentator anyway) George Washington possessed the largest hands ever seen on a man. For the historical record, I would also like it to be known that Dr. Dudley A. Sargent of Harvard University was a plagiarist. Let this serve as a warning to others, that whether justice comes in your own lifetime or 80 years down the line, you may be sure that your sins will find you out, and your name be forever blackened by your perfidy.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

40. Sometimes a morbid kindness

Like many overgrown boys, I thrill to the sensational exploits of television survival artiste Bear Grylls. He may not have the nut-gathering, bucolic charm and authenticity of Ray Mears, but he has a far more rugged name. A recent programme did display a somewhat Morissette-ish tendency in his language, by his declaring how 'ironic' it would be if, after all the lions, tigers and bears he has wrassled with in his career, his life was brought to an untimely end by the toxic sting of a bee. My own feeling is that it would really be far more ironic if Bear choked to death on a pillow mint in one of those luxury hotels he stays in during his extreme adventuring.

I cannot help but wonder if, when he's skinning a skunk or drinking his own piss from a snakeskin, we can't see a certain nameless gleam in Mr Grylls' eyes, as he looks towards his cameraman and solitary companion in the wilds. Have I pushed myself far enough? he seems to be thinking. Is there not a further, more sublime realm of the will to survive yet to be breached? Are there not sweeter meats than raw toad at hand?

"Man, being by nature carnivorous as well as frugivorous, and human flesh being not unfit for human food, the question first arises why mankind have generally not only avoided it, but have looked with horror on exceptional individuals and races addicted to cannibalism. [...]

"The pricipal [causes of infractions of this aversion] have been the pressures of famine, the fury of hatred, and sometimes even a morbid kindness, with certain motives of magic and religion, to which must be added the strong tendency of cannibalism, once started in any of these ways, to develop a confirmed appetite which will afterwards be indulged for its own sake.

"I. Famine.-The records of shipwrecks and sieges prove that famine will sometimes overcome the horror of cannibalism among men of the higher nations. Thus it is not surprising that savages, from their want of food adapted for storing as well as from their reckless improvidence, should in severe climates be often driven to this extremity. For examploe, it is known that the miserable natives of Tierra del Fuego, when starving in winter, would throttle and devour the oldest woman of the party ; when asked why they did not rather kill their dogs, they replied, "Dogs catch otters !"[...]

"III. Morbid Affection.-Cases of the dead being devoured by relatives and friends (especially children by parents) from a sentiment of affection are recorded among low savage tribes [...]. As lately as the 13th century, William of Ruysbruck was told that the people of Tibet had till recently kept up this custom of eating their deceased parents, and still used their skulls as drinking cups [...].

"IV. Magic.-Few notions belonging to primitive savage magic are more intelligible or more widely spread than the belief that the qualities of any animal eaten will pass into the eater. [...]An English merchant in Shanghai, during the Taeping siege, met his Chinese servant carrying the heart of a rebel, which he was taking home to eat to make him brave [...].

"V. Religion.-One of the strongest reasons for considering anthropophagy as having widely prevailed in prehistoric ages is the fact of its being deeply ingrained in savage and barbaric religions, whose gods are so often looked upon as delighting in human flesh and blood. The flesh of sacrificed human victims may even serve to provide cannibal feasts. The understood meaning of these rites may be either that the bodies of the victims are vicariously consumed by the worshippers, or that the gods themselves feed on the spirits of the slain men, their bodies being left to the priests and people. [...]

"VI. Habit.-The extent to which anthropophagy has been carried among some nations is, no doubt, mainly due to the indulgence of the appetite once aroused. In such cases this reason is openly avowed, or some earlier motive remains rather in pretext than in reality, or the practice is justified on the ground of ancestral custom. It seems, for instance, that the cannibal feasts of old Mexico had become in themselves acceptable to the people, and that we must refer the sickening horrors of Fijian anthropophagy more to sensual gratification than to any religious motive. [...]

" As to the history of anthropophagy, the most interesting question is whether at any early period it was ever a general habit of the human race. [...]It has been well argued that had the men of the quaternary period been cannibals, we should find the bones generally cracked for the marrow like those of beasts, which is not the case [...].The discovery of some few ancient human remains, the state of which seems to indicate that the flesh had been eaten, may perhaps be taken to show that prehistoric savages were in this respect like those of modern times, neither free from cannibalism nor universally practising it. During later ages, it may have even increased rather than diminished with the growth of population,—its greatest excesses being found among high savage tribes or nations above the savage level. But with the rise of civilization to its middle and upper levels, it is more and more kept down by the growing sense of the dignity of man, and eventually disappears, as we may hope, irrevocably."

(From the article CANNIBALISM by Edward Burnett Tylor, LL.D., D.C.L., F.R.S., Keeper of the University Museum, Oxford. Find this article in full at

Incidentally, what a great and innocuous-seeming word Anthropophagy is. My advice to the likes of Herr Miewes, wishing to avoid the inevitable stigma and social baggage associated with the terms 'cannibal' and 'man-eater,' would be to introduce themselves as an anthropophagist and move quickly on to the subject of what an astounding fellow that Born Survivor chap is.
[This post has been edited for added Bear Grylls content]

Thursday, 6 November 2008

39. Mental perturbations and the emergencies of intellectual combat

I am indebted to the kind and indiscriminate praise of Chessbumbus for reminding me of the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica's very fine article on the subject of the game of kings. W. Norwood Porter's introduction is a masterly opening, and be you not stricken by obstinacy, indolence, or self-esteem, you should find it instructive, and a balm to the troubles of your cerebral organ.

CHESS, simply defined, is an intellectual pastime. It recreates not so much by way of amusement properly sо termed, аs by taking possession of the mental faculties and diverting them from their accustomed grooves. The cerebral organ, after being much occupied in business, or greatly worried by cares, or in any way beset by painful reflections, finds in the absorbing and abstracting properties of chess that temporary relief which lighter pastimes will not always afford. The reason of this is not far to seek. Cares are caused by looking forward to or apprehending things to come, and, as such, are neutralized by that foresight which the conduct of a game of chess demands. Again, mental perturbations, however much varied, can but be the employment of the imagining and reasoning faculties in the digestion of the particular cause of annoyance or pain ; but these same faculties are required, and their exclusive exercise demanded, in providing for the emergencies of the intellectual combat, and in solving the ever varying problems that arise in the course thereof. It is very commonly supposed that chess is a difficult game, whether to acquire or practise. This, however, is a mistake. The moves may be learned in half an hour, and a week's practice will evoke a sufficient amount of skill to afford pleasure both to the learner and his tutor. The intelligent novice will soon be convinced that an ignorant manipulation of the pieces does not conduce to success, and he will seek for instruction in the right manner of opening the game ; the various débuts are after all simple, and he will find no difficulty in acquiring them one after the other. Six months will suffice for this purpose if his understanding be not enslaved by obstinacy, indolence, or self-esteem, and the rest goes with his natural capacity. A merely average intelligence is sufficient for a very fair amount of proficiency and strength ; while intellect not much above the common mean will suffice (assuming here natural aptitude) to lead right up to the second class of players, viz., those to whom the masters of the game can only concede tho small odds of "pawn and move." Those wishing to improve will find it very beneficial to play upon even terms with players stronger than themselves ; for a persistence in taking odds, besides having a discouraging and debilitating effect upon the weaker player, takes the game out of its proper grooves, and tends to produce positions not naturally arising in the ordinary course of the game as developed from the recognized openings. In fact, the reception of odds incapacitates a player from acquiring an insight into the principles of the science of chess, and from comprehending the latent meanings and conceptions upon which combinations and a proper plan of warfare are founded ; while, upon the contrary, playing on even terms throws the combatant at once upon his own judgment, and by causing him to study his opponent's play, leads necessarily to a material improvement in his own style."

I must confess that the the old cerebral organ experienced difficulty with the sentence : Again, mental perturbations, however much varied, can but be the employment of the imagining and reasoning faculties in the digestion of the particular cause of annoyance or pain ; but these same faculties are required, and their exclusive exercise demanded, in providing for the emergencies of the intellectual combat, and in solving the ever varying problems that arise in the course thereof.

But I liked it very much.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

38. ii) Let us have faith that right makes might

John G. Nicolay provides a comprehensive biography of the celebrated Illinois lawyer, rail-splitter, and chicken-fight judge, which can only be done full justice by being read in full. I would then direct the curious to peruse your local library for a copy of Gore Vidal's Lincoln (presumably to be shortly reprinted if Mr Spielberg gets round to directing Liam Neeson in a cinematic adaptation), and to download the electronic text of Alexander K. McClure's Lincoln's Yarns and Stories: a complete collection of the funny and witty anecdotes that made Lincoln famous as America's greatest story teller.

As is standard practice in EB9's biographical essays, Nicolay's piece closes with a portrait of its subject, and is one of the more compelling examples of its kind. There might be more argument in Lincoln's case than Washington's as to whether events may have reached a more or less satisfactory conclusion in his absence, but even his sternest critics must concede that he was a man of unique ability, and who faced the challenges of his duty with unparalleled energy and dedication. At the very least, if cornball humour combined with a deep and brooding melancholy is your thing, then Lincoln, of all great men of history, is surely the most deserving of a place as a guest at one of those hypothetical dinner parties of the ages. I think I would probably seat him next to Richard Madely.

"President Lincoln was of unusual stature, 6 feet 4 inches, and of spare but muscular build ; he had been in youth remarkably strong and skilful in the athletic games of the frontier, where, however, his popularity and recognized impartially oftener made him an umpire than a champion. He had regular and prepossessing features, dark complexion, broad high forehead, prominent cheek bones, grey deep-set eyes, and bushy black-hair, turning to grey at the time of his death. Abstemious in his habits, he possessed great physical endurance. He was almost as tender-hearted as a woman. "I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom," he was able to say. His patience was inexhaustible. He had naturally a most cheerful and sunny temper, was highly social and sympathetic, loved pleasant conversation, wit, anecdote, and laughter. Beneath this, however, ran an undercurrent of sadness ; he was occasionally subject to hours of deep silence and introspection that approached a condition of trance. In manner he was simple, direct, void of the least affectation, and entirely free from awkwardness, oddity, or eccentricity. His mental qualities were—a quick analytic perception, strong logical power, a tenacious memory, a liberal estimate and tolerance of the opinions of others, ready intuition of human nature ; and perhaps his most valuable faculty was rare ability to divest himself of all feeling or passion in weighing motives of persons or problems of state. His speech and diction were plain, terse, forcible. Relating anecdotes with appreciative humour and fascinating dramatic skill, he used them freely and effectively in conversation and argument. He loved manliness, truth, and justice. He despised all trickery and selfish greed. In arguments at the bar he was so fair to his opponent that he frequently appeared to concede away his client’s case. He was ever ready to take blame on himself and bestow praise on others. "I claim not to have controlled events," he said, "but confess plainly that events have controlled me." The Declaration of Independence was his political chart and inspiration. He acknowledged a universal equality of human rights. "Certainly the negro is not our equal in colour," he said, "perhaps not in many other respects; still, in the right to put his mouth the bread that his own hands have earned, he is the equal of every other man white or black." He had unchanging faith in self-government. "The people," he said, "are the rightful masters of both congresses and courts, not to overthrow the constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert the constitution." Yielding and accommodating in non-essentials, he was inflexibly firm in a principle or position deliberately taken. "Let us have faith that right makes might," he said, "and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it." The emancipation proclamation once issued, he reiterated his purpose never to retract or modify it. "There have been men base enough," he said, "to propose to me to return to slavery our black warriors of Port Hudson and Olustee, and thus win the respect of the masters they fought. Should I do so, I should deserve to be damned in time and eternity. Come what will, I will keep my faith with friend and foe." Benevolence and forgiveness were the very basis of his character ; his world-wide humanity is aptly embodied in a phrase of his second inaugural : "With malice toward none, with charity for all." His nature was deeply religious, but the belonged to no denomination ; he had faith in the eternal justice and boundless mercy of Providence, and made the golden rule of Christ his practical creed. History must accord him a rare sagacity in guiding a great people through the perils of a mighty revolution, an admirable singleness of aim, a skilful discernment and courageous seizure of the golden moment to free his nation from the incubus of slavery, faithful adherence to law and conscientious moderation in the use of power, a shining personal example of honesty and purity, and finally the possession of that subtle and indefinable magnetism by which he subordinated and directed dangerously disturbed and perverted moral and political forces to the restoration of peace and constitutional authority to his country, and the gift of liberty to four millions of human beings. Architect of his own fortunes, rising with every opportunity, mastering every emergency, fulfilling every duty, he not only proved himself pre-eminently the man for the hour, but the signal benefactor of posterity. As statesman, ruler, and liberator civilization will hold his name in perpetual honour."

Monday, 3 November 2008

38. i) The largest hands ever seen on a man

The heart of Barleycorn Towers is set to glow with the unearthly radiance of the cathode-ray tube throughout Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, as the presidential contest in our former colonies is followed through all the baroque twists and turns of its final, decisive (barring lawyerly appeals to the Supreme Court) hours. What better way to join the frenzy of excitement than by taking a look at the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica's portraits of some of the more notable past occupants of the throne of democracy? And where better to begin than with the wooden-toothed and giant-handed father of the nation himself?

"WASHINGTON, GEORGE (1732-1799), the first president of the United States, was born in Westmoreland county, Virginia, February 22 (Old Style, Feb. 11), 1732. One lawless genealogist has traced his ancestry back to Odin. [...]

"[H]is diaries show comparatively little reading, a minutely methodical conduct of business, a wide acquaintance with the leading men of the country, but no strong indications of what is usually considered to be "greatness." As in the case of Lincoln, he was educated into greatness by the increasing weight of his responsibilities and the manner in which he met them. [...]

"It is not easy to see how Washington survived the year 1775 ; the colonial poverty, the exasperating annoyances, the selfishness or stupidity which cropped out again and again from the most patriotic of his coadjutors, were enough to have broken down most men. They completed his training. The change in this one winter is very evident. If he was not a great man when he went to Cambridge, he was a general and a statesman in the best sense when he the British out of Boston in March 1776. From that time until his death he was the foremost man of the continent. [...]

"When the Federal Convention met at Philadelphia in May 1787 to frame the present constitution he was present as a delegate from Virginia, though much against his will; and a unanimous vote at once made him its presiding officer. He took no part in the debates, however, beyond such suggestive hints as his proposal to amend a restriction of the standing army to 5000 men by forbidding any enemy to invade the United States with more than 3000. He approved the constitution which was decided upon, believing, as he said, "that it was the best constitution which could be obtained at that epoch, and that this or a dissolution awaits our choice, and is the only alternative." [...]

" All the accounts agree that Washington was of imposing presence. He measured just 6 feet when prepared for burial ; but his height in his prime, as given in his orders for clothes from London, was 3 inches more. La Fayette says that his hands were "the largest he ever saw on a man." Custis says that his complexion was "fair, but considerably florid," His weight was about 220 lb. The various and widely-differing portraits of him find exhaustive treatment in the seventh volume of Winsor’s Narrative and Critical History of the United States. The editor thinks that "the favourite profile has been unquestionably Houdon’s, with Stuart’s canvas for the full face, and probably Trumbull’s for the figure." Stuart’s face, however, gives the popular notion of Washington, though it has always been a subject of curious speculation to some minds how much of the calm and benign expression of the face was due to the shape of Washington’s false teeth. [...]

"Washington’s disorder was an aedematous affection of the wind-pipe, contracted by careless exposure during a ride in a snow-storm, and aggravated by neglect afterwards, and by such contemporary remedies as excessive bleeding, gargles of "molasses, vinegar, and butter" and "vinegar and sage tea," which "almost suffocated him," and a blister of cantharides on the throat. He died without theatrical adieus ; his last words were only business directions, affectionate remembrances to relatives, and repeated apologies to the physicians and attendants for the trouble he was giving them. Just before he died, says his secretary, Mr Lear, he felt own pulse ; his countenance changed ; the attending physicians placed his hands over the eyes of the dying man, "and he expired without a struggle or a sigh.""

This article, by Alex. Johnston, Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy, Princeton College, N. J., is available in its entirety at

Sunday, 2 November 2008

37. The age of blocking : when any neat-handed man could print for himself

"In Europe, as late as the second half of the14th century, every book (including school and prayer books), and every public and private document, proclamation, bull, letter, &c., was written by hand ; all figures and pictures, even playing-cards and images of saints, were drawn with the pen or painted with a brush."

J. H. Hessels, M. A. writes these words in his history of TYPOGRAPHY, as an introduction to the rather complex issue of the invention of printing in Europe. Hessels acknowledges that print had already existed for over a millennia in China and the East, but makes a clear case that the later development in the West was independent of that innovation.

Before the revolutionary introduction of moveable type, printing by use of carved blocks of wood had a growth of popularity across Europe in the late middle ages. The first products of this process were religious texts and playing cards.

"At Bruges printers and beeldemakers (makers, engravers of images) were enumerated in 1454 among the members of the fraternity of St John the Evangelist. The printers of playing cards seem to have constituted a separate class. [...]It seems also certain that wealthy persons and religious institutions were wont to possess sets of blocks, and, when occasion arose, they printed a set of sheets for presentation to a friend, or in the case of monasteries for sale to the passing pilgrim. A printer of briefs or block-books had no need to serve an apprenticeship ; any neat-handed man could print for himself."

Interestingly a large proportion of the block-printed manuscripts that have survived from 15th century Germany are apocalyptic in subject matter : an illustrated text of the writing of John the Evangelist, "The Antichrist (Der Enndchrist)," "The Fifteen Signs of the Last Judgement," and "The Dance of Death (Dance Macabre ; Der Doten Dantz)." Self improvement also figures with "The Ten Commandments for Unlearned People."

The TYPOGRAPHY article continues, including much of interest on the subject of founts and all kinds of matters pertaining to printing, and shows a progression from the earlier rude work to an age of giant presses of great sophistication. There can hardly be a doubt that our word-processing software and laser ink-jet thingumajigs are, although generally smaller and less steam-driven, of a whole other degree of sophistication. Nonetheless, is it an overactive imagination that sees a line of descent from the carvers of wooden blocks, or blockers if you will, through pamphleteers, samizdat and fanzine publishers, to the humble purveyors of opinion and reflection that are free to disseminate their rough-cut, unedited ramblings throughout Interwebshire?

The printed word is not yet dead, but in many aspects, technological innovation threatens to make print redundant. For all my love of the inky page, I have learned the value of reading a book from the two inch screen of an iPod, and find that being able to carry Gibbons' Decline and Fall around in my pocket - and in a format that allows me to make annotations and highlight text at a brush of the finger - makes it considerably less of a priority in these financially-straitened times to seek out a shelf-worth of a print edition (although, if anyone is getting rid...). See the free eReader and Stanza software, and, putting aside the objections to paying good money for a book that only exists as a save file, consider the enormous catalogue of out-of-copyright texts that are there for the taking : for which see the aptly-named Project Gutenberg and as starting points.

The modern publishing world has given us the curious phenomena of the most financially successful writer of stories about boy wizards in human history, actually causing book vendors to lose money hand-over-fist in the competition to garner sales. Interwebshire, on the other hand, gives us the means by which writers, such as the unclassifiable but perhaps not uncertifiable Mr Frank Key, too tangentially bizarre, unless something about this world of ours twists unexpectedly for the better, for two-for-the-price-of-one deals at Waterstones, can infect without hindrance discerning brains, and give incurable page-turners the opportunity (courtesy of to order a print copy of such work as "Unspeakable Desolation Pouring Down From The Stars," "Befuddled by Cormorants" and now "Gravitas, Punctilio, Rectitude & Pippy Bags." Traditional publishing : 0, Elecro-jiggery-pokery : 1.

Monday, 27 October 2008

36. Wayward tendencies

Another instructive and colourful biography of a notable personage from the pages of the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. If today's theatre or the screen can offer a personality to compare I would be surprised. As the article in its original form does not appear to be found elsewhere in Interwebshire, and as it contains the phrase "a thrilling sweetness like the witchery of the finest music," I present it here in full, without apology. A comparison with what I am assuming is the eleventh edition's reworking of this piece can be made by visiting this site.

"KEAN, EDMUND (1787 - 1833), an English actor, chiefly celebrated as an impersonator of Shakespearean characters, was born at Chancery Lane, London, November 4, 1787. His reputed father was Aaron Kean, stage carpenter, and his mother was a strolling actress, Ann Carey, grand-daughter of Henry Carey, the author of the National Anthem, and the natural son of George Savile, marquis of Halifax. When only in his fourth year Kean made his first appearance on the stage as Cupid in one of Noverre's ballets at the opera-house. His fine black eyes, his bright vivacity and cleverness, and his ready affection to those who treated him with kindness, made him in childhood a universal favourite, but the harsh circumstances of his lot, and the want of proper restraint, while they developed strong self-reliance, fostered wayward tendencies. About 1794 a few persons benevolently provided the means of sending him to school, where he mastered his tasks with remarkable ease and rapidity ; but finding its restraints intolerably irksome, he shipped himself as a cabin boy at Portsmouth. Soon discovering that he had only escaped to a more rigorous bondage, he counterfeited both deafness and lameness with a histrionic mastery which deceived even the physicians at Madeira. On his return to England he sought the protection of his uncle Moses Kean, mimic, ventriloquist, and general entertainer, who, besides continuing his pantomimic studies, introduced him to the study of Shakespeare. At the same time Miss Tidswell, an actress who had been specially kind to him from infancy, taught him the principals of acting. On the death of his uncle he was taken charge of by Miss Tidswell, and under her instruction he began the systematic study of the principal Shakespearean characters, displaying even at this early period the peculiar originality of his genius by interpretations entirely different from those of Kemble. His brilliant talents and interesting countenance induced a Mrs Clarke of Guildford Street, Russell Square, to adopt him, but the unlucky remark of a visitor so touched his sensitive pride that he suddenly left her house and went back to his old surroundings. In his fourteenth year he obtained an engagement to play leading characters for twenty nights in York Theatre, appearing as Hamlet, Hastings, and Cato. Shortly afterwards, while he was in the strolling troupe of Richardson, the rumour of his abilities reached the ear of King George III, who commanded him to recite at Windsor Castle. It is affirmed that this incident led some gentlemen to send him to Eton College ; but the next three years of his life, from 1803 to 1806, are without authentic record. In 1807 he played leading parts in the Belfast theatre along with Mrs Siddons, who said that he "played very well," but that "there was too little of him to make a great actor." An engagement in 1808 to play leading characters in Beverley's provincial troupe was brought to an abrupt close by his marriage with Miss Chambers, the leading actress, and for several years after his prospects were so dark that, when contemplating the possibility of a debut in London, he was in the habit of exclaiming, "If I succeed I shall go mad." In 1814, however, the committee of Drury Lane theatre, the fortunes of which were then so low that bankruptcy seemed inevitable, resolved to give him a chance among the "experiments" they were making to win a return of popularity. His debut there on the 26th January as Shylock roused the audience to almost uncontrollable enthusiasm, and successive appearances in Richard III., Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Lear only served to demonstrate to the fullest the greatness of his powers and his complete mastery of the whole range of tragic emotion.

"Probably the irregular habits of Kean, even from the period when he became famous, were prejudiced to the refinement of his taste, and latterly they tended to exaggerate his special defects and mannerisms. The adverse decision in the divorce case Cox v. Kean, and his consequent separation from his wife, roused against him such bitter feeling as almost compelled him to retire permanently into private life. Ultimately he was received with all the old favour, but the contrast by its effects both on his bodily health and on his feelings had made him so dependent on the use of stimulants that the gradual deterioration of his gifts was inevitable. Still, even in their decay his great powers triumphed during the moments of his inspiration over the absolute wreck of his physical faculties, and compelled admiration when his gait had degenerated into a weak hobble, when the lightning brilliancy of his eyes had become dull and bloodshot, and the tones of his matchless voice were marred by rough and grating hoarseness. His last appearance on the stage was at Covent Garden, on the 25th March 1833, when he played Othello to his son's Iago. At the words "Villain, be sure" in scene 3 of act iii. he suddenly broke down, and fell insensible into his son's arms. He died at Richmond, 15th May 1833.

"It was especially in the impersonation of the great creations of Shakespeare's genius that the varied beauty and grandeur of the acting of Kean were displayed in their highest form, although probably his most powerful character was Sir Giles Overreach, the effect of his first impersonation of which was such that the pit rose en masse, and even the actors and actresses themselves were overcome by the terrific dramatic illusion. His only personal disadvantage as an actor was his small stature. His countenance was strikingly interesting and unusually mobile ; he had a matchless command of facial elocution ; his fine eyes scintillated even the slightest shades of emotion and thought ; his voice, though weak and harsh in the upper register, possessed in its lower range tones of penetrating and resistless power, and a thrilling sweetness like the witchery of the finest music ; above all, in the grander moments of his passion, his intellect and soul seemed to rise beyond material barriers and to glorify physical defects with their own greatness. In Othello, Iago, Shylock, and Richard III., characters utterly different from each other, but in which the predominant element is some form of passion, his identification with the personality, as he had conceived it, was as nearly as possible perfect, and each isolated phrase and aspect of the plot was elaborated with the minutest attention to details, and yet with an absolute subordination of these to the distinct individuality he was endeavouring to portray. If the range of character in which Kean had attained supreme excellence was narrow, no one except Garrick has been so successful in so many great impersonations. Unlike Garrick, he had no true talent for comedy, but in the expression of biting and saturnine wit, of grim and ghostly gaiety, he was unsurpassed."

Saturday, 25 October 2008

35. ii) Sympathy with books and reading

Tedder and Thomas continue their article with nothing less than an overview of practically every library on the planet. Twenty-one pages of text are accompanied by ten pages of tables, and the mind, as the cliché goes, boggles. This article is pervaded by a proud sense of the dynamic modern phenomena of free access to knowledge and the wisdom of the ages. It is not difficult to see the parallels with this internet thing in many regards, perhaps excepting the porn and the free downloadable smileys.

The credentials given for the British Museum's library leave us in no doubt that it was the foremost collection of knowledge in the history of mankind. (A nod is made to the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris, but here Blighty's pride "far excels the latter institution in the systematic arrangement and accessibility of its contents." So there.) Leaving aside the detailed description of the actual collection, which I am sure you will take for granted, there is a brief account of the "comfortable accommodation for readers" in the hallowed reading-room.

"Perhaps not the least convenient arrangement here is the presence of the superintendent, whose duty is to help readers in their difficulties ; the varied qualifications of the present holder of the office are well known. The electric light has been successfully used until 8 o'clock P. M. through the darker months from the earlier part of October. In order to enjoy the privilege of reading at the British Museum, the applicant (who must be over twenty-one years of age) must obtain a renewable ticket of admission through a recommendation of a householder addressed to the principal librarian. Formerly no person was admitted until the ticket had been presented at the entrance, but latterly this rule has been considerably relaxed."

An overview of the chief libraries of the United Kingdom and the rest of the globe should be comprehensive
enough for the casual reader, especially an overview which gives high praise to the Picton Reading Room at the Liverpool Library - which retains, I am happy to report, much of its splendour today, including a wonderful echo that continuously leads one to the temptation to slam a book shut or drop a pen on a desk to enjoy the sonic aftermath. Sufficient for the casual reader, but Tedder and Thomas have a higher standard of comprehension, although even they allow for limits.

"In compiling the following tables officials of the libraries have been personally applied to, and in most instances the information has been supplied by them. An attempt has been made to give particulars of all libraries of general or special interest in the United Kingdom. As regards those of other countries the list has been usually limited to those of 30,000 vols. and upwards, with a few exceptions."

These particulars include date of foundation, number of volumes, number of manuscripts, to whom accessible and "Special Character and Remarks." Perhaps I should find better ways to spend my time, but I find an endless fascination wandering through these bibliographic odds and ends.

Wigan's Free Public Library, for example (founded 1877 ; 27,000 vols.) understandably specializes in mining, and very intriguingly is listed as having 1 manuscript. An ancient pie recipe, perhaps. Chetham's Library in Manchester (founded 1653 ; 40,000 vols.) is noted for its "Popery tracts." That dumbing-down is not a 21st century phenomena we have the evidence of the Stadt-B. library in Danzig (founded 1580 ; 83,000 vols.) which was "Formerly learned ; now gen." The Konigl.- und Universitats-B. of Konigsberg (1534 ; 184,000 vols.) lends, to "students and others by guarantee", an impressive 25 books at one time. The University of Michigan's library at Ann Arbor by contrast (1841 ; 40,000 vols., general and reference) only lends books to professors, while the Apprentices' Library of New York (1820 ; 63,000 vols.) lends to apprentices and working women free of charge, to others for $2. As a final, sombre note, we find that the only notable collection in Peru, that of the B. Nacional at Lima (1821 ; 35,000 vols.) is "said to have been taken by Chilians to Santiago."

It would hardly be surprising if this inundation of data left you with an inclination to start a library of your own - fear not! Help is at hand : the article ends with five pages of information on Library Management, including detailed, practical advice on a wide range of relevant issues, including classification systems, the creation of a catalogue, precautions against fire, the acquisition of books, and much else besides. Some of this reads a little like Polonius :

"Practical Hints.- Collate every volume when it comes in, so as to prevent binder's imperfections ; remove plate-paper when the book is quite dry ; strings and silk registers are to be avoided, as they tear the leaves ; preserve old bindings as far as possible, and do not permit book-plates, the names of former owners, and MS. notes of any kind to be destroyed ; be careful with metal clasps and corners ; let gilding be used sparingly ; do not hurry the binder overmuch, as he may retaliate by returning his work insufficiently dried and pressed ; be careful with letterings ; index dictionaries and works of reference on the fore edges ; bind up paper wrappers ; never let a binder exercise his fatal proclivity to cut away full margins."

Please note, in appreciating the wealth of detail that the authors expend on this fascinating subject : the above advice takes up about an eighth of one page of this 40 page article.

It seems fitting to close with some of Tedder and Thomas's thoughts on the subject of librarians themselves, including some startlingly progressive remarks concerning the employment of females in that capacity.

"Without insisting on quite so wide a range of subjects as did F. A. Ebert in his Bildung des Bibliothekars (Leipsic, 1820), one may expect the librarian of a great library to be a man of liberal education, and specially endowed with sympathy with books and reading ; a practical acquaintance with bibliography, including palaeography, and bibliology, is also necessary, as well as with the theory and practice of library management. To be thoroughly qualified, a librarian should have had the practical experience of library-work which it is impossible to obtain from any amount of book reading. Besides this he ought to be a man of business and a good administrator.

"[...]Women are gradually making their way in libraries. At Manchester and elsewhere they are successfully employed as assistants ; and in several other places in England the chief charge of a library is maintained in a very efficient manner by a lady. In the United States the majority of the librarians are ladies (at the Boston Public Library no less than two-thirds of the staff), and many of the most accomplished cataloguers are of the same sex."


Friday, 17 October 2008

35. i) Dusty books and silence

Last week, here at the European Capital of Culture 2008, we were blessed by no less august a figure than Andy Burnham, the government’s Culture Secretary, outlining the glorious future for Britain’s libraries in the 21st century, “far removed from the stereotype of dusty books and silence.” Libraries, we are thrilled to hear, will be put at the very heart of communities, and all kinds of excitement and fun will be contained therein.

Liverpool, like most UK cities, has a splendid record of doing its very best to banish the association of libraries with mere dusty books, by selling volumes acquired at public expense off at 10p a book, at a rate sufficient to keep the city’s antiquarian book dealers in business. By rigorously applying the criteria of popularity of a given volume to determine whether it remains in the collection, libraries are managing to gradually phase out the fuddy-duddy ramblings of yesteryear with the latest Buffy the Vampire Slayer serialization. I am not complaining : recent acquisitions to the Barleycorn collection have included Nelson's Purse ("the rise and vertiginous fall of Nelson's confident, Alexander Davison") printed way back in 2004, and The Shield of Achilles : War, Peace and the Course of History (2002), which were together worth paying less than the price of a pint of milk for.

Last month The Times managed to hilariously put recent relaxations of prohibitions against food and talking to the test by sending a reporter round to various London libraries to talk loudly on her mobile phone and spill doughnut crumbs and cola on the books. What larks, Pip!

Volume 14 of the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica contains the fascinating and extensively researched article LIBRARIES by H. R. Tedder, F. S. A., Librarian, Athenaeum Club, and E. C. Thomas, B. A., Secretary, Library Association, London. As well as a history of libraries, advice on the collection and maintenance of a library, there is also a survey, accompanied by a table consisting of ten pages of statistics, of the collections of every library in the United Kingdom and the principal libraries of the rest of the world. It is impressive and striking as an attempt to provide something of an index to all the printed knowledge of the planet, circa 1882.

The historical portion of the article gives a fascinating impression given of the fragility, across the ages, of the process by which knowledge has been transferred, and a tantalising vision of all that has been lost to dust and fire.

“The researches which have followed the discoveries of Botta and Layard have thrown unexpected light not only upon the history but upon the arts, the sciences, and the literature of the ancient civilizations of Babylonia and Assyria. In all these wondrous revelations no facts are more interesting than those which show the existence of extensive libraries so many ages ago, and none are more eloquent of the elaborateness of these forgotten civilizations.

“In the course of his excavations at Nineveh in 1850, Layard came upon some chambers in the south-west palace, the floor of which, as well as of the adjoining rooms, was covered to the depth of a foot with tablets of clay, covered with cuneiform characters, in many cases so small as to require a magnifying glass. These varied in size from an inch to a foot square. […] These tablets formed the library of the great monarch Assur-bani-pal -the Sardanapalus of the Greeks - the greatest patron of literature among the Assyrians. It is estimated that this library consisted of some ten thousand distinct works and documents, some of the works extending over several tablets. The tablets appear to have been methodically arranged and catalogued, and the library seems to have been thrown open for the general use of the king’s subjects. [See Menant, Bibliothéque du Palais de Nineve, Paris, 1880.] A great portion of this library has already been brought to England and deposited in the British Museum, but it is calculated that there still remain some 20,000 fragments to be gathered up. [...]"

Complaints of cultural imperialism would be entirely out of place here, but it is kind of fun to read a throwaway contemporary reference to the British Museum's hoovering up of artifacts and antiquities.

There follows an account of the ancient Greek libraries, centering on those of Alexandria. I had a vague idea that the destruction of that renowned repository of learning was a particular and infamous event in history : it transpires that the historical truth is more complex.

"When Caesar set fire to the fleet in the harbour of Alexandria, the flames accidentally extended to the larger library of the Bruchium, and it was destroyed. [Parthey (Alexandrinisches Museum) assigns topographical reasons for doubting this story.] Anthony endeavoured to repair the loss by presenting to Cleopatra the library from Pergamus. This was very probably placed in the Bruchium, as this continued to be the literary quarter of Alexandria until the time of Aurelian. [...] The usual statement that from the date of the restoration of the Bruchium under Cleopatra the libraries continued in a flourishing condition until they were destroyed bafter the conquest of Alexandria by the Saracens in 640 A.D. can hardly be supported. It is very possible that one of the libraries perished when the Bruchium quarter was destroyed by Auralian, 273 A. D. In 389 or 391 an edict of Theodosius ordered the destruction of the Serapeum, and its books were pillaged by Christians. When we take into account the disordered condition of the times, and the neglect into which literature and science had fallen, there can be little difficulty in believing that there were but few books left to be destroyed by the soldiers of 'Amr. The familiar anecdote of the caliph's message to his general (vol. i. p. 494) rests mainly upon the evidence of Abulfaragius, so that we may be tempted to agree with Gibbon that the report of a stranger who wrote at the end of six hundred years is overbalanced by the silence of earlier native annalists. It is, however, so far from easy to settle the question that a cloud of names could easily be cited upon either side, while some of the most careful inquirers confess the difficulty of a decision."

This underlines something brought to mind recently, when I heard on the radio some academic or politician speaking of a constant cultural effort throughout 19th century British academia to denigrate the Arabic and Islamic world. I have yet to scour the pages of Britannica for references which may support or refute this assertion ; my general impression at the time was that the statement was some way off the mark, : this article supports that notion. Elsewhere, where the authors write of libraries in the dark and middle ages, this is emphasized again. After speaking of the fragile flame of learning preserved by monastic tradition (with its own repeated outbreaks of hostility against the writings of earlier pagans), we read :

"The first conquests of the Arabians, as we have already seen, threatened hostility to literature. But, as soon as their conquests were secured, the caliphs became the patrons of learning and science. Greek manuscripts were eagerly sought for and translated into Arabic, and colleges and libraries everywhere arose. Baghdad in the East and Cordova in the West became the seats of a rich development of letters and science during the age when the civilization of Europe was most obscured. Cairo and Tripoli were also distinguished for their libraries. The royal library of the Fatimites in Africa is said to have numbered 100,000 manuscripts, while that collected by the Omayyads in Spain is reported to have contained six times as many. It is said that there were no less than seventy libraries in the cities of Andalusia. Whether these figures be exaggerated or not - and they are much below those given by some Arabian writers, which are undoubtedly so - it is certain that the libraries of the Arabians and the Moors of Spain offer a very remarkable contrast to those of the Christian nations during the same period."

Still to come : Tedder & Thomas's catalogue of the world's libraries, and how best to avoid the fatal proclivity of book-binders.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

34. Thoroughly organized, drilled, and equipped for service.

The author of the article quoted in the previous three postings is one Professor McKendrick. Britannica prints his name as M’Kendrick in each instance. I am assuming that this is following either some printing convention or personal preference, for elsewhere in Britannica Scots names are printed with the full Mc or Mac, or are likewise apostrophized. Checking the list of contributors in the Index volume, in trying (without success) to fathom if there is a discernible rule when the apostrophe comes into play, I was delighted to find amongst the many academics of Scots descent one George Brinton McClellan (given as M’Clellan).

McClellan was a Union general during the American civil war, lionized in song , but rather notoriously remembered in history as a battle-shy popinjay. Before the war he had been a successful and highly-regarded railway engineer, surely as notable a field of achievement as could be made in peacetime 19th century affairs. At the outbreak of the war, as the major-general of Ohio’s volunteers he achieved striking successes, where the Union was elsewhere suffering humiliating defeats and the threat of Washington’s capture. The handsome young general was a popular choice when promoted to commander of the northern armies.

McClellan proved to have a prodigious talent for the organization and discipline of his forces, matched by an equally prodigious inclination to avoid engaging the Confederate forces in actual combat. McClellan’s unwillingness to commit his troops in battle and his repeated habit of massively overestimating the strength of opposing forces, were knowingly exploited by wily southern generals such as Jackson and Lee. His repeated procrastination is often considered to be one of the single most significant factors in the bloody protraction of the war. Lincoln, if my understanding (based pretty much entirely on Gore Vidal’s splendid biographical fiction) is halfway correct, had no faith at all in the abilities of his well-groomed commander, and was finally able to dismiss him after the carnage at Antietam (considered nonetheless by many at the time and since to be McClellan‘s greatest victory).

To be fair to McClellan, his faults, although apparently clear enough to Lincoln, are easily marked with the historical benefit of hindsight. Had McClellan not been in the position to assemble and instill with faith and confidence such a disciplined and united army, there may have been no victory for later generals to win.

McClellan’s contribution to Britannica is, perhaps disappointingly, not a biography of some military leader of the ancients nor a treatise on keeping buttons and boots polished, but rather the entry in volume 17 for NEW JERSEY, of which state McClellan served a term as governor from 1878 to 1881. The article follows the standard format for geographical entries, describing the physical features of the state, listing its natural resources, tabulating its industry, commerce and population, closing with a description of local government, institutions and history.

Whilst otherwise devoid of material for easy interpretation, other than to confirm a love for and pride in his adopted state, there is perhaps a personal flash in the very last words of the article, describing New Jersey’s military capacity :

“At the breaking out of the civil war of 1861the number of men in the State available for military duty was 98,806 ; and during that war New Jersey organized and maintained 37 regiments of infantry, 3 regiments of cavalry, and 5 batteries. The national guard of the State now consists of 48 companies of infantry and 2 Gatling gun companies, numbering 3220 officers and men, thoroughly organized, drilled, and equipped for service.”

McClellan’s reputation for being more concerned with the parade ground than the battlefield, is not contradicted by the omission of any specific reference to the New Jersey troops being ready for action.

From McClellan‘s entry in the biographical section of volume 23‘s UNITED STATES article, we learn that he died “at Orange Mountain, N.J., Oct 29, 1885.” In his article, McClellan tells us that the post of governor is “elected by the people for a term of three years ; no one can serve in this capacity for two successive terms.” I cannot help but imagine the blue pen of an editor striking out “not even General George B. McClellan.” Death itself ruled out the possibility of a non-successive term.

Sources: EB9’s biography of McClellan is rather kind and brushes over the specifics of his defects. “The Life of Abraham Lincoln” by Henry Ketcham (1901) is widely available free of charge in numerous formats throughout Interwebshire, and has a useful chapter on the relations between the president and the general.

The current Britannica articles on George B. McClellan and the American Civil War are worth a look for a brief introduction to the modern historical perspective.

The photograph illustrating this piece comes from the Smithsonian Institution website, and shows a splendidly turned out McClellan and staff, posing for the camera, while (as one source has it) the distant sounds his fellow General Pope’s army being defeated at the second battle of Bull Run could be heard : Georgey playing his trademark hand of keeping his own forces safely unused in reserve. There are a wealth of fascinating photographs of the period, and of course much else besides, at the Smithsonian's main site.

A tip of the hat to the, well, encyclopaedic knowledge of the brains behind for bringing my attention to the matter of the apostrophization of Scots patronymics, and also for identifying the article penned by the great general.

ADDED RELEVANCY UPDATE (15.10.08): Somehow I managed to miss the news that Sarah Palin, one of the more interesting candidates to run as vice president, twice name dropped General McClellan in an interview the other week, apparently under the mistaken impression that he was leading American forces in Afghanistan.

Friday, 10 October 2008

33. iii) This intricate ganglionic mechanism

"No one now doubts that consciousness has an anatomical substratum, but the great problem of the relation between the two is as far from solution as in the days when little or nothing was known of the physiology of the nervous system. Consciousness has been driven step by step upwards until now it takes refuge in a few thousand nerve-cells in a portion of the grey matter of the brain. The ancients believed that the body participated in the feelings of the mind, and that, in a real sense, the heart might be torn by contending emotions. As science advanced, consciousness took refuge in the brain, first in the medulla and lastly in the cortex. But even supposing we are ultimately able to understand all the phenomena - chemical, physical, physiological - of this intricate ganglionic mechanism we shall be no nearer a solution of the problem of the connexion between the objective and subjective aspects of the phenomena. [...]"

At the regrettable expense of neglecting further colourful references to vivisection (including an intriguing method of removing monkey grey matter using pressurized jets of water), we close our all too brief examination of Prof. McKendrick's contribution to PHYSIOLOGY with the above.

For all the doubtless marvellous advances made by neuroscience in the years that have followed, I have the idea that the problem of consciousness would be couched in similar terms today, and remains unanswered. Similar terms, but I would not expect the same language. There is a certain poetry in the professor's writing, coloured by a certain hint of melancholy and the macabre, and this final section somehow reminds me of Hamlet's soliloquies. George Bernard Shaw, so the Wikipedia informs us, read the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica in its entirety - excepting the scientific articles. Mr Shaw missed out.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

33. ii) More fun with pigeons

"Flourens and the older observers were aware of the fact that as successive slices of grey matter are removed from the cerebrum an animal becomes more dull and stupid, until at last all indications of perception and volition disappear. A pigeon in this condition (see fig. 29), if carefully fed, may live for many months ; to quote from Dalton -

"The effect of this mutilation is simply to plunge the animal into a state of profound stupor, in which it is almost entirely inattentive to surrounding objects. The bird remains sitting motionless upon his perch or standing upon the ground, with the eyes closed and the head sunk between the shoulders. The plumage is smooth and glossy, but is uniformly expanded by a kind of erection of the feathers, so that the body appears somewhat puffed out, and larger than natural. Occasionally the bird opens its eyes with a vacant stare, stretches its neck, perhaps shakes its bill once or twice, or smooths down the feathers upon its shoulders, and then relapses to its former apathetic condition."

Similar observations have also been made on reptiles and mammals, but the latter survive the operation for a comparatively short time. In watching such an animal it is difficult to divest one's mind of the belief that it still feels or hears. It may be observed that it rarely makes movements unless stimulated from without. Thus it may remain motionless for many hours ; but if pushed, or gently touched, it moves. As remarked by Prof. M. Foster -

"No image, either pleasant or terrible, whether of food or of an enemy, produces any effect on it, other than that of an object reflecting more or less light. And, though the plaintive character of the cry which it gives forth when pinched suggests to the observer the existence of passion, it is probable that it is a wrong interpretation of a vocal action ; the cry appears plaintive, simply because, in consequence of the completeness of the reflex nervous machinery and the absence of the usual restraints, it is prolonged. The animal is able to execute all of its ordinary bodily movements, but in its performance nothing is ever seen to indicate the retention of an educated intelligence.""

Monday, 6 October 2008

33. i) Fun with pigeons

"If the cerebellum be removed gradually by successive slices - an operation easily done in a pigeon - there is a progressive effect on locomotive actions. On taking away only the upper layer there is some weakness and a hesitation in gait. When the sections have reached the middle of the organ the animal staggers much, and assists itself by its wings in walking. The sections being continued further, it is no longer able to preserve its equilibrium without the assistance of its wings and tail ; its attempts to fly or walk resemble the fruitless attempts of a nestling, and the slightest touch knocks it over. At last, when the whole cerebellum is removed, it cannot support itself even with the aid of its wings and tail ; it makes violent efforts to rise, but only rolls up and down ; then, fatigued with struggling, it remains for a few seconds at rest on its back or abdomen, and then again commences its vain struggles to rise and walk. Yet all the while sight and hearing are perfect. See fig. 26. It attempts to escape, and appears to have all its sensations perfect. The results contrast very strongly with those of removing the cerebral lobes. "Take two pigeons," says Longet ; "from one remove completely the cerebral lobes, and from the other only half the cerebellum ; the next day the first will be firm on its feet, the second will exhibit the unsteady and uncertain gait of drunkenness.""

(from Professor J. G. M'Kendrick, M.D.'s fascinating contribution to the article PHYSIOLOGY, volume XIX of the 9th Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1885.)

Monday, 29 September 2008

32. Gorgeousness in matter and meanness in manner

The Barleycorn family have been making use of their National Trust membership and taking advantage of the weekend's 2p per litre dip in the price of petrol, visiting two of the nation's cherished tourism honeypots : Stonehenge and Windsor Castle. Barleycorn Sr is disgruntled to note that Places of Interest seem to have universally dispensed with wordy plaques and notice boards and are now all proud to inflict an mp3 player and headphones on the touring classes. In opening the audio guide to Windsor Castle spent a fair bit of time explaining what arrow slits and battlements are and the scenarios in which they might have been employed, after which it explained nothing, having been switched off.

At Stonehenge it seemed reasonable to dispense with whatever facts and fancies may have comprised the tour contents, as I am fairly sure, having read the odd newspaper article here and there concerning whichever latest archaeological speculation about the site, that precious little indeed is known about the stones or exactly who put them there and how. EB9's brief article reasonably reports suggestions that the stones weren't erected by the Romans, but most probably by druids, perhaps between the 1st BC and the 6th century AD. Although I am entirely confident that later archaeologists have rightly put vastly earlier dates to the structures, it is interesting to note the remark in EB9 that "Stonehenge was first mentioned by Nennius, in the 9th century, who asserts that it was erected in commemoration of the 400 nobles who were treacherously slain near the spot by Hengist, in 472."

Looking to see what else Britannica may have on the subject of Stonehenge, the Index directed me to volume II and the article ARCHITECTURE, by T. Hayter Lewis, Professor of Architecture, University College, London and George Edmund Streep, late Royal Academician. I found myself entirely distracted from my purpose by a caustic and unsparing attack, quite startling in its vehemence, on the architectural merits of St Peter's Cathedral in Rome. It would make an entertaining audio tour of the site.

"[...]The front of St Peter's is not more distinguished by its magnitude than by its littleness and deformity. [...]It is divided into three unequal stories, within the height of the columns, whose entablature is surmounted by a windowless attic. In length it is frittered into a multitude of compartments, between which not the slightest harmony is maintained, while tawdriness and poverty are the distinguishing characteristics of its detail. A total absence of everything which produces grandeur and beauty in architecture, marks, indeed, the whole of the exterior of the edifice, except the cupola, than which, if its bad connection with the building out of which it grows is overlooked, architecture seldom produced a more magnificent object. Internally, the structure is open to similar praise and similar dispraise. Gorgeousness in matter and meanness in manner characterise the interior of St Peter's, except the sublime concave which is formed by its redeeming feature without.

[...]The tawdry and inappropriate sculptured decorations of the Renaissance school can nowhere be criticised with more advantage than in St Peter's. It is not too much to say that, throughout the interior, there is scarcely an ornament which is not offensive ; whilst not one of them has the slightest natural connection with, or use in, a sacred building. Perhaps sculpture never reached so profound a bathos as the hideous cherubs which are stuck, like petrified acrobats, against all the piers of St Peter's ; and when we hear of such a building being treated as a model for our guidance in the completion of St Paul's, we are driven devoutly to hope that St Paul's may never in that sense be completed at all. Few people ever seem to trouble themselves to look at any part of St Peter's except the entrance front and the dome. If they would examine the rest of the exterior, they would find it to be a building without one other redeeming feature, or a single grace of outline or detail, and so absolutely unscientific in its constructional arrangements as to be beneath contempt as a complete work of architecture."

St Paul's Cathedral : beneath contempt, ha! Put that in yer pipe and smoke it, ye cherub-obsessed Italianate fops. (More of this article can be read at the ever-indispensable

My brief and inadequate examination of the article does not reveal which of the two authors is responsible for this particular passage, but it does not seem to be beyond the bounds of possibility that George Streep, late Royal Academician, may indeed have been carried from this mortal coil by a fit of apoplexy after penning this spirited and sustained diatribe.

(Apoplexy, as this same volume usefully informs us, being "commonly understood to apply to a fit of sudden insensibility occurring in connection with some diseased condition of the brain.")

Sunday, 21 September 2008

31. We are all to blame

In these dark days of credit crunches and global financial meltdown, you may well have considered the price of eggs in your local supermarket and thought to yourself, Why, it seems that only a year ago this product was considerably cheaper. You may have found yourself wistfully recalling the turn of the century abandon with which you once consumed omelettes.

Occasionally the accounts one reads in the newspapers of this phenomena of the price of food tending to increase somewhat have verged on the sensational : The Guardian compared the cost of a loaf of bread in 1998 (10p!) with 2008 (120p!), neglecting to observe that the first price was for a Tesco Value loaf made with bleached sawdust, the second being for one of those loaves fortified with Omega 3, pro-biotics and steroids marketed at Übermensch-rearing parents.

Property prices, having increased by approximately 14,000% over the last ten years or so, partly on the back of the Halifax's very popular buy-one-get-one-free mortgages, have now actually begun to sink a little, to widespread woe, garment-rending, and the gnashing of teeth.

I heard from two different commentators on Radio 4 yesterday that we are all to blame for this lamentable state of affairs, so for my part I here offer my humble apologies and heartfelt contrition.

Our shared responsibility allows a certain degree of sympathy with poor Mr Bush, who began his entertaining run in the role of Joe President announcing $1.6 trillion of tax cuts and refunds, and now finds himself, in the twilight days of office, having coincidentally spent about that much on a war against Terror (there have been those unkind enough to suggest that Mr Bush would have been better advised to target Mild Discomfort, or perhaps Acid Reflux), and buying the bad debts of the various crashing financial giants of Wall Street. Fiscally speaking, Bush Minor's actions were nothing more than the geo-political equivalent of taking four years with nothing to pay at Sofas Direct in the January sales - and then turning your home over to chainsaw-wielding crocodiles with pet hyenas, just as the first installment is due. To quote the Odyssey's famed author : D'oh.

Although financial institutions such as the Lehman Brothers themselves predate the publication of the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, it cannot be ignored that there have been changes since that time. The FINANCE article, by J. E. Thorbold, M.P., Professor of Political Economics, University of Oxford, outlines the history of the manner in which British governments have raised revenue. How were government's coffers filled at the height of Empire?

It will be seen [...] that the continuity of the present system of British finance depends upon a continuity in the habits of the people. The revenue derived from alcoholic liquors and tobacco amounts annually to about 42 millions. That which is supplied from articles of voluntary consumption, the use of which is wholly innocent, is about 4 1/2 millions, the principal contribution to this head coming from tea. Purely direct taxation - the land, house, and income tax on the one hand (the last named at 3d. in the pound), and stamps, probate, and legal duties on the other - yield nearly equal sums, a little short of 8 millions each. The security, then , of the English revenue depends on the extent to which the habits of consuming alcoholic liquors and tobacco are permanent. The consumption of the former is threatened by a powerful and apparently growing organization and agitation, and it can hardly be doubted that, should those who demand that the control of the traffic in alcoholic liquors ought to be transferred from the present licensing bodies to a direct popular vote be successful, the dimensions of the trade would be curtailed and the revenue diminished. One cannot otherwise account for the alarm which is felt by those interested in the success of the trade at the activity of their critics, and the process by which the advocates of restraint believe that they can compass their ends. It is possible, also, that in the future the poorer classes, whose consumption is the cause of so large a revenue, may imitate the temperance or moderation of those who are better off, and whose habits are to all appearance in marked contrast to those of their progenitors two or three generations ago. Should such a change ensue, it is not easy to determine what would be the direction taken by the financiers of the future [...]

The direction of the financiers of the future was to tax everything to the hilt. As fortune would happily have it, the conspicuous consumption of alcohol and tobacco have not notably declined over the years, but their place in the raising of revenue have been overshadowed by income tax, National Insurance and VAT. Just to underline the rate of income tax in the 1880s quoted above - 3 pennies in the pre-decimal pound being 1.25%. Punitive taxation regimes like that were what had sparked rebellion in the North American colonies. Still, it is a curious point that when Britain was the workshop of the world, it was the habits and luxuries of the feckless poor which paid the expense of government, whereas today, no small amount of the national expense goes towards subsidizing indigence and the excesses of the moneyed and unmoneyed alike. We are all to blame, as they say. Shame on us.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

30. Relevancy update

What with the manner in which news and events have a habit of occurring somewhat continuously, I am occasionally confounded by an absence of serendipity, which would otherwise lend me an authoritative air of prescience and relevancy.

Days after posting about Britain's 19th century dominance of the opium trade, the newspapers were full of reports about Helmand province's soaring levels of production, quoting levels of production that would perhaps have inspired approval from EB9's statisticians, although they may have needed to reconsider their views of racial characteristics considering which peoples provide today's moral imbeciles.

With possibly the headline of the year (Pope urges crackdown on reported visions of Mary) The Times last week reported Benedict XVI's admirably robust stance on the verification of visitations by the BVM.
The pontiff believes bishops should resist being swayed by the emotional reaction of believers and be guided instead by strictly applied "scientific, psychological and theological criteria".

A rational approach which would have warmed the heart of Andrew Lang, M.A., and which promises to bring the church of Rome to the leading edge of critical 19th century thinking.

Now we have boffins at Harvard telling us that evolution has hard-wired superstition into our brains. Well, you lofty egg-heads, we're one step ahead of you at According to the Ninth : your news is no news to us. Have you never heard of Mysterizingness? Away with your effete heresies!

At this rate I should hardly be surprized if, in a week or two, I open the papers to read that someone has drilled their way into the Gold Melting House of the Royal Mint. Please remember, Accordingianists, you read it here first.

Monday, 15 September 2008

29. The Royal Mint and Mr Darlington's rock drill

Today I find myself wondering : Did the proximity of the articles MINING and MINT, in the 16th volume of the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ever inspire in some hubristic, would-be Moriarty, dreams of what would surely be remembered as the most audacious criminal enterprise in history?

Saturday, 6 September 2008

28. (ii)Ingenious mechanical contrivances

La Machine's spider was by no means a disappointment, but neither was it an AUTOMATON
"a self moving machine, or one in which the principle of motion is contained within the mechanism itself. According to this description, clocks, watches, and all machines of a similar kind, are automata, but the word is generally applied to contrivances which simulate for a time the motions of animal life.

[...]400 years B.C., Archytas of Tarentum is said to have made a wooden pigeon that could fly ; and during the Middle Ages numerous instances of the construction of automata are recorded. Regiomontanus is said to have made an iron fly, which would flutter round the room and return to his hand, and also an eagle, which flew before the Emperor Maximilian when he was entering Nuremberg. Roger Bacon is said to have forged a brazen head which spoke, and Albertus Magnus to have had an androides, which acted as doorkeeper, and was broken to pieces by Aquinas.

[...]No notice of automata can be complete without at least a reference to Kempelen's famous chess player, which for many years astonished and puzzled Europe. This figure, however, was no true automaton, although the mechanical contrivances for concealing the real performer and giving effect to his desired movements were exceedingly ingenious."

Friday, 5 September 2008

28. (i)The merry conceits of Squire Punch

The city of Liverpool, over this grey and rainy September weekend, will experience one of the highlights of its year as European Capital of Culture, in a spectacular performance by the French puppeteers La Machine. The Barleycorn family will be off in an hour to witness the awakening of a giant spider from the depths of space, which promises to spend the next three days marching around the city centre, possibly killing and devouring any hapless scousers that get in its way. The spectacle has apparently cost in the region of £2 million. Better value, perhaps, than the Lord Mayor, footballers' wives, and a handful of soap opera stars emerging from a cargo container, and twenty minutes of Ringo banging drums on top of St George's Hall that launched the year's festivities.

La Machine's arachnid has the precedent of the company's giant pachyderm which transfixed London in 2006. The MARIONETTES article from the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica offers some historical precedents which may not meet the scale of today's cunning Gallic performers, but which may well have left a similar awed impression on the audiences of their day.

[The Spectator of 1711] refers also to Pinkethman, a "motion maker," in whose scenes the divinities of Olympus ascended and descended to the strains of music. An idea of the class of representation may be gathered from an advertisement of Crawley, a rival of Pinkethman, which sets forth - "The Old Creation of the World, with the addition of Noah's Flood,"also several fountains playing water during the time of the play. The best scene represented "Noah and his family coming out of the ark, with all the animals two by two, and all the fowls of the air seen in a prospect sitting upon trees ; likewise over the ark is the sun rising in a gorgeous manner; moreover a multitude of angels in a double rank," the angels ringing bells. "Likewise machines descending from above, double, with Dives rising out of hell and Lazarus seen in Abraham's bosom ; besides several figures dancing jigs, sarabands, and country dances, with the merry conceits of Squire Punch and Sir John Spendall." Yates showed a moving picture of a city, with an artificial cascade, and a temple, - with mechanical birds in which attention was called to the exact imitation of living birds, the quick motion of the bills, just swelling of the throat, and fluttering of the wings. The puppets were wax figures 5 feet in stature. Toward the end of the 18th century, Flocton's show presented five hundred figures at work at various trades. Brown's Theatre of Arts showed at country fairs, from 1830 to 1840, the battle of Trafalgar, Napoleon's army crossing the Alps, and the marble palace of St. Petersburg ; and at a still later date Clapton's similar exhibition presented Grace Darling rescuing the crew of the "Forfarshire" steamer wrecked on the Fern Islands, with many ingenious moving figures of quadrupeds, and, in particular, a swan which dipped its head into imitation water, opened its wings, and with flexible neck preened and trimmed its plumage.